To what do these words refer in Matthew 16:27?
The question must be answered in terms of the text itself—including its context. Many, whenever they hear the words “coming” think immediately of the Second Coming. However, that is the wrong thing to do. Since there are several “comings” predicted in Scripture, we must determine in each case to which “coming” any given passage refers.
“The answer is simple,” some say. Look at what is described–He comes along with His angels, with His Father’s glory, and is ready to reward men and women for their works. This has got to be the second coming.”
But in the context Jesus, Himself, makes it clear that this is not the coming to which He was referring. How do we know that? What did He say? Jesus told us (verse 28) that there were some alive at the time when He spoke who would not die before they saw the Son of Man coming.
Obviously, that to which He referred, then, was an event that He called a “coming,” that would take place in His generation. And there was such an event—forty years later (70AD) His kingdom replaced the Roman kingdom (that was the final phase of sinful world dominion) about which Daniel wrote (in chapters 2, 7). Daniel’s metallic man, predicting the kingdoms of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome by the various metals in each part, was to be destroyed by a kingdom that, like a stone not cut out by human hands, would bring down the entire image. This stone would strike the image in the days of Roman dominance—the same time as the destruction of Jerusalem that occurred in 70AD. That kingdom would grow, as it went into all of the earth (Cf. Colossians 1:6, 23), and would be an eternal kingdom, never to be replaced as the previous Satanic kingdoms had been. It was the kingdom of Christ—the subject of Matthew 16:27, 28.
Now, many would question this because of the mentioning of angels, the glory of God and the rewards that participated in the establishment of the kingdom. That is what throws them off. But, the glory of the Father was manifested in the destruction of a nation that had, like the tenant farmers in a parable of Jesus, killed His prophets and finally His Son as well (Matthew 21:33ff). Angels were involved in that destruction according to Revelation 8:2ff (in which the same event is portrayed). The reward was escape or ruin, according to whether or not one believed in Jesus as Savior. He signaled that sign of the imminent coming as the city being surrounded with armies, and told the believers to get out when they appeared—head for the hills (Luke 21:20). Which they did (See Josephus, Wars of the Jews). Those who disbelieved were slaughtered by the Romans and by the parties fighting each other within the city of Jerusalem. There was a brief period in which the Romans withdrew (and the Christians escaped), never to withdraw again until the devastation was complete. The word “reward” doesn’t always refer to something good. Rather, sometimes, it simply means getting what is coming to you (see, for instance Isaiah 65:7). Nor does “see” always mean see in the sense of observing something visible. The destruction itself was the visible event that gave evidence of the invisible coming of the kingdom. When Jesus told the High priest he would “see” Him sitting on the right hand of God (Matthew 26:64), he was using the word in the same way. Those who put Him to death would, in the destruction, “see” what Daniel had predicted taking place. This included the “coming” of the Son of Man to the Father to receive His kingdom (Daniel 2,7). The clouds, and the angels were predicted in that vision as well as here in Matthew.
This is not the only passage that is misinterpreted as referring to the second coming, so, be careful to distinguish those things that differ!